PR: Where did the idea for this story come from?
JD: It’s really the result of so many moving parts. This story doesn’t exist without “We” by Mary Grimm, a first person collective story about suburban women that I read during my MFA and thought, “How would I do this?” Next came Boyz n the Hood, which I re-watched the summer of 2017, and I was like, “Man, this movie was so iconic to us growing up,” and then—bam—I had an entry point for that “us.” From there it was a blend of slam and spoken word poetry, hip-hop, and also wanting to write a love letter to my childhood, my neighborhood, my city. I also need to shout out Danny Brown here, because listening to his music has always hit close to home for me, and I don’t think a lot of my ideas would materialize without the landscapes Danny creates through music and storytelling.
PR: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
JD: I would say the collective’s transition from childhood into adulthood, along with reconciling the opening of the story with its conclusion.
Author interview with Patrick Ryan, available online at One Story
In these posts about stories, I usually try to focus on what about the story works, or doesn’t work, for me. Is it something about the subject matter that interests me (like religion or science), some situation I identify with (a dilemma I recognize, a family issue I’m familiar with), a technique I appreciate (like the use of second-person)? I tend to avoid the phrases I see so often in book reviews: “a sensitive portrayal,” “unique voice,” “beautifully written.”
And then I come across a story like this one where all I can say is, “Dayum, I couldn’t stop reading it, I loved this kid, I delighted in his youthful goofiness and cried for him when it all fell apart. It was a sensitive portrayal of a character I otherwise wouldn’t have known at all, told with a unique voice in beautiful writing.”
Well, no, that’s not all I can say. It’s told in first-person-almost-plural. There’s a definite I but there’s a definite sense of we as well. The title hammers this home, and leaves me wondering. I like a story that doesn’t hand me all the answers, but lets me propose a few different possibilities.
We start out with Frail Boy as a little brown kid in urban Chicago, connected to everything around him:
I was an only child, and todo el mundo kept an eye on me, parents, grandparents, even the neighbor lady Doña Rosa who was blind as a bat but somehow always knew when I was getting into something, could just feel it…. Yeah, I had a lot of attention. I think that’s why I got out. But we didn’t have it so bad. We went to pick up soccer games at Montrose Field and it was like the whole city came out: Colombians, Ricans, Mexicans, every inch of grass covered in folding chairs and pastel blankets depicting La Virgen. You’d think it was the World Cup…. We had my front porch, it was the tallest. We used to take turns jumping off of it, feeling the shock in our legs as we made impact on the grass, competing to see who would cross the railing and then pussy out, cross back, and take the walk of shame. More often than not it was me – I was the frailest, and that’s what they called me, Frail Boy – but sometimes it wasn’t me taking that walk, and then I’d let them have it for real… And we had imagination. For every intersection we could not cross, another was invented in our backyards…. For a while we didn’t have to worry about the world beyond our gated lawns. Our parents did their best to hide us from alleyways and trap houses, from the vatos with tattoos crawling up their thick necks. All of life was play life; basketball, tag, paletas, football, Mario Kart, kiddie pools, scraped knees, teasing kids, wrestling moves,…. All our stories were play stories.
It’s easy for those of us who didn’t grow up in places like this to think of them as hellholes, but we forget there’s joy as well and Duque submerges us in that joy, that sense of community. It’s hard to resist smiling as we read.
I try to avoid ellipsing more than once in a quote, but pulling quotes for this story made that difficult. The above passage comes from a section that’s four pages long, and reads in one breath. But even I, who sometimes takes advantage of Fair Use, wouldn’t quote that much, so I’ve (painfully) chopped it up to preserve the content at the expense of the sense of continuity. It’s the very beginning of the story, so it sets Frail Boy and his friends up as indelible characters for what lies ahead. It’s great writing, a great opening.
And, of course, kids grow up. I was sad to move on, leave the child Frail Boy behind, but Duque, again, made the transition less painful by the way he handled it:
And then there was change. Time got the better of us. We grew fuzz above our lips, our balls dropped overnight, voice cracks morphing into booming laughter until that was just how we sounded now. I remember I looked in the mirror one morning and poof: those puffy brown cheeks – hay que liiiiindos – that tía fingers couldn’t resist pinching were gone.
What’s interesting is that Frail Boy and his friends keep a sense of play even as they start working for crack dealers. I’m not sure how that’s possible. Things do get dark, of course; how could they not. But for a moment there’s a sense that they’re going to survive this, it’s just a phase before they find something else to do.
It isn’t a phase. It might have been, but they’re urged to up their game, strive “for that next level.” Geez, capitalism plus drugs, what could go wrong. Everything. And though this is tough business, it’s irresistable: the “elephant in the room” paragraph of who wasn’t anywhere when Mickey-Dee got shot is artfully told, with denial and confession wrapped up in one paragraph, followed by honor among thieves and how it all goes to hell.
Then there’s the page-long paragraph of a mother looking desperately for her son who’s disappeared, a paragraph that switches back and forth between English and Spanish and Motherhood and God’s Plan. In his Contributor Note (I switched it up and used the One Story interview as lead-in this time) Duque says, “To my bilingual brain, language is music.” That’s evident throughout the story, but it’s in this paragraph that it rivals Beethoven.
The story isn’t about Frail Boy’s rise and fall; it’s about the neighborhood, about the community, about how time washes away the past for the present to take over the future. Frail Boy becomes not only the protagonist, but also the witness, the Stage Manager, the narrator.
Now this area is too busy to think about or remember what we went through…. Can’t say I’m surprised by the newcomers, but even our own people don’t believe us. Kids whose folks I used to roll with – who were too young to remember what life was like on this block – saying things like Our parents used to know you, Frail Boy. They made this place better than how you left it. Can you believe that? Like I wasn’t a part of our history. Spics with no sense of roots, out here ruining it for the last of us. Because our parents had no papers, the first thing we were taught in life was that we were the tellers of our own stories. When we were little, José, Cristian, and me knew that well. Time after time our parents gave us the talk – sometimes together – about how we had to be prepared for our world to end. Who to tell the day they disappeared, how to dial a calling card long distance, what to say to the gringos who’d come knocking at our door. We knew that before we knew how to ride a bike. And sometimes we were tested on it. What would we do first if they never came home. How would we be believed. Look: we had to get our story straight. So we don’t care if you don’t believe us.
“We were tellers of our own stories.” That line rings out to me, as Duque is the teller of his own story, not the story those of us who never lived anywhere like his Chicago neighborhood imagine in our head, the story of a kid who grows up and keeps a sense of joy and community and family, and finds himself in danger of being erased, dismissed. We need witnesses like this.
I remain puzzled by a few things. The title, for one. Who is the us? Who are the rest? In the end, Frail Boy is the only one left, so he might be the rest of us. But that final section of reproof to the next generation makes me think it’s bigger, the rest of us are the ones who came before, the past on whose shoulders, for better or worse, the present stands. Or it could be the shifting us throughout the story: Mickey-Dee was one of us until he wasn’t.
I also wonder about something Duque said in his One Story interview:
PR: Finish this sentence in just one word—the word you think best captures it: “This story is about __________.”
Author interview with Patrick Ryan, available online at One Story
It’s something he also mentions in his Contributor Note:
As a first-generation citizen, a lot of my life has been spent hearing people tell me about things I couldn’t do. I could never be American enough, I could never be Columbian enough, and I could never force the literary industry to value my bilingual experience on my terms. Likewise, a lot of my identity as an artist has been forged in resistance to convention, and I’ve produced works in an effort to reject the supposed rules of writing.
Jenzo Duque, Contributor Note
I’m not sure what rules of writing he feels he’s breaking – maybe the first-person-almost-plural approach? The code-switching? I don’t see them as rule breaking but as techniques that have grown more popular in recent years, decades. I can imagine (though not agree with) a tenth-grade composition teacher frowning on some of this, but this is the stuff MFA programs are designed to generate… aren’t they? How would I know. In any case, whatever he’s resisting, I hope he keeps resisting it, because he’s found a means of expression that’s exquisite.
Ward classified this story with those about young people struggling, coping (or not), surviving. I might also see it in her immersion classification, as I could feel myself submerging in the language. It was very much like the first story I read from this volume, Kochai’s Metal Gear story: I never expected to care so much, to understand so deeply a child’s world so different from mine. That’s the power of story.
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- Jake Weber commented on his blog Workshop Heretic: “One notable characteristic of this story is that feels a lot more like a creative essay than a short story. It has the logic, chronology, and vocabulary of creative non-fiction more than fiction.”